Albanian Gangham Style

Please excuse the relentless bragging that is about to ensue, but I have the best students ever so I can’t help it.

On March 23rd my students participated in an international campaign called “Earth Hour” by getting our whole city to commit to turn off their lights from 8:30-9:30 to raise awareness about the environment.

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We also participated in the campaign’s “I will, if you will” challenge by promising to dance gangham style in the center of the city if 100 people committed to riding bikes or taking public transportation instead of driving their cars for 1 week.

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Mission accomplished.

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We even got the municipal government to support us by turning off their lights too.

And then it was time to follow through on our promise. Tiny hitch in the plan. My students don’t know how to dance gangham style. So, as the multi-purpose PCV that I am, I became a professional dance choreographer and teacher over night. I can’t wait to update my resume with all my newly acquired skills when I finish my Peace Corps service. Oh the bizarre things I’ve had to learn to do…and this list keeps growing. Anyway, we practiced the dance all week then got invited by the US Embassy to come and do the dance in Tirana (the capital).

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What’s more, the embassy wanted to award us with a trophy and certificate to honor our commitment to our community and hard work mobilizing the population to make a difference. So me and my 24 students of the “Change the World” club headed to Tirana to dance our hearts out and shake hands with the ambassador.

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The embassy even informed the tv stations so we had all these cameras in our faces all day and lots of my students gave interviews. And after the award ceremony at the embassy, Ambassador Arvizu was nice enough to sit down withe us for half an hour just to chat, which is unheard of for those of you who know anything about the bureaucracy of DC diplomatic operations.

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I won’t bore you with details of the conversation, but the highlight for my students was when Arvizu asked me if I have a boyfriend. Wonderful, Danielle, wonderful. Way to make an impression. I’m not even sure how the conversation took that turn. There goes all my hopes and dreams of becoming an ambassador someday! Next time I’ll keep my mouth shut.

Want to watch our Gangham Style dance (with inserted Albanian touches like circle dancing)? Check it out:

Stay tuned for our next adventures to Change the World!

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

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Just one quick question

So I’ve been trying to plan some trips around the balkans for the last few weeks and slowly realizing just how difficult it is to do things the “American way” when living abroad. Albanians do things…let’s just say…a little slower. You may just have one quick question, but I guarantee you are in for a least an hour long conversation, 2 coffees, raki, and full 3 course meal.

To start with, every conversation in Albanian starts by asking in at least 6 different ways how you are doing…”C’ kemi! Si e kalove ti? A u lodhe? C’ bëni? Si ke qenë? A jeni mirë?”…and yes they literally rattle them off like that every time, leaving you no time to actually respond to the barrage of questions. At first it was offputting and frustrating because in the U.S. we are a very straingforward, get to the point, no time to chat, kind of people. But not in Albania.

Here, a phone call to ask what time the bus to Croatia leaves takes twice as long as you anticipated because it turns out that the man on the phone is his long-lost cousin (everyone in Albania is related I swear to God) and he has to spend the first 10 mins of the conversation asking about the health of each and every other cousin in the family. And there’s me, tapping my foot in irritation because I thought I could get this question answered in the 5 mins break between classes at school. Instead I’m listening to this man ask over and over again, “how are you? how are things? what have you been doing? how have you passed the time?…” and on and on and one. But I continue to stand there and smile and wait, and wait, and wait.

So with all the time in the world on my hands (thanks to this epically long conversation for a simple answer), I think to myself- why does everything in Albania inevitably take 10 times longer than it should? I know! Communism. For everything that’s wrong in Albania, the answer is always communism. How? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s because people have been unemployed for so long that they have nowhere to go, nowhere to be, and no obligations to meet. They can spend an entire afternoon chatting about the weather and it’s not wasted. This is also a society that is founded on nepotism. You have to know someone to get anywhere in life here. So the more you pamper someone by pretending you care about their brother, sister, mother, father, etc. the more likely they are to get you that job you wanted. But what do I know, really. Good thing I have an entire afternoon waiting for this man to get off the phone to figure it out.

Ironically, there’s even a popular Albanian song that’s lyrics go something like this …”Why do we ask how are you so much? 2-3 times. We say it too much. Just shut up.” Got to love a little self-deprecation through music.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Edhe 100 vjec!

For those of you who didn’t know, yesterday was my birthday. This is not some sly plea for attention or gifts in the mail (but if you were so inclined my address is literally “the american girl in Shkoder, Albania”) or facebook posts, I promise. But I would like to take this opportunity to make a small cultural comparison of how we celebrate this wonderful day of the year here in Shkoder and back home in D.C. (please feel free to extrapolate that to Albania at large and whatever U.S. city you are from of course).

In the U.S. birthday parties a chance for your friends to prove their love for you by either a.) throwing you a spectacular surprise party, b.) buying you expensive gifts, c.) baking cakes for you, or d.) bursting out in song whenever they see you to cause general embarrassment and sheer enjoyment as they make fools of themselves singing “Happy Birthday”. I knew things would be a little different this year, seeing as how I live in Albania and everything, but honestly a lot was the same.

The new generation in this country is slowing bringing Albania into the global communal culture that is spread through the internet, social networking, and modern media outlets. Aka a lot of things they do and want to do here are the same as teens in America. So at midnight I got a phone call from my students telling me to look out my window. Ok, that may sound creepy but it was actually endearing. They had snuck into my family compound with champagne and cake and candles and were singing Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs. I’m sure you can imagine the smile on my face.

The next day at school people shouted “Happy Birthday!” at me whenever I walked by and they started singing every time I walked into a classroom to start the lesson. All wonderful things, mind you, and very similar to my past American-style high school birthdays.

The main difference between how these two cultures celebrate birthdays, is that in Albania your birthday is a time for you to shower your friends with gifts, not vice versa. I’m trying to be more Albanian, so I brought a huge cake to school and served it to the teachers in honor of my birthday. That’s right, I stood behind a table and served them rather than the other way around. Then some of my students wanted to go out for coffee with me (for which I had to pay, of course) so I happily obliged. Then another group of students wanted to do the same. How could I say no? Then all the teachers wanted to go to dinner with me (again, for which I had to pay) so I obliged to that as well. It’s amazing how quickly your birthday becomes all about other people, right?

But I genuinely didn’t mind. These people have given me everything this year. They have made this experience so incredible I can barely put it into words. The least they deserve is a free coffee. And in their eyes, it’s actually an honor for me to buy them a coffee. No exaggeration. People here literally argue over who will pay the bill at the end of a meal and take real pleasure of paying for everyone at the table. It’s a competition of sorts to see who’s the most generous and most respected (for example, when having coffee with the principal of our school we always “let” her pay)..and I’ve yet to buy so I guess I’m way over due.

In America I remember inviting as many people as possible to birthday parties so that you could get as many gifts as possible. Now I feel ashamed when I think about it, and for good reason of course. Albanians are just so much more giving, and I’ve learned a lot from them. American birthdays are all about honoring you but Albanian birthdays are all about honoring the people around you instead. I’ll take it.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

A little slice of home

It’s the simple things in life that make it worth living.

After being so far from home for a year, you tend to develop strange cravings. You want to eat things you’d never have eaten back home, simple because they remind you of home. Needless to say, anything that is remotely American gets my tastebuds going these days.

So imagine my shock and surprise and pure merriment when I went to San Francisco Restaurant in Shkoder and found these beauties!DSC05969

Muffins have come to Albania! Amazing. Simply amazing.

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This restaurant is single-handedly bringing change to Albania. Okay maybe I exaggerate a little, but I think it’s the adrenaline talking. The man who owns this miraculous gem of a restaurant defected from the Albanian army back in the 80s, sought political asylum in the U.S., and lived there happily for 17 years. After his long hiatus abroad, he’s finally returned to his homeland with dreams of making it a better place. And he’s starting with food. Which, to me, is exactly where every conversation should start! He’s doing his best to bring American standards of service, running a business, and cooking to Shkoder with a menu featuring pancakes, muffins, barbecue, and so much more. Is your mouth watering yet? It’s a PCV’s dream come true.

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So in the spirit of strange American cravings, I decided that I absolutely needed to make Puppy Chow (or Muddy Buddies, or whatever you call it). When the thought first came to me it sparked one of those cravings that couldn’t be ignored. I simply had to have them. And I would’ve gone to any length to get me some Puppy Chow. But unfortunately we have almost none of the ingredients for this magical American snack food here in Albania. So I had to make some adjustments. The end result? Not exaaactly like Puppy Chow, but close enough to taste remotely like home and get me through the day.

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Ingredients:

1 box of Corn Flakes (because we don’t have Chex…same flavor, different texture)

1 cup of Squirrel Spread (Albania’s version of Nutella, because PB is too expensive and hard to find)

1/2 cup of margarine (because Albania butter tastes like a farm, literally)

2 cups of powdered sugar (our’s isn’t the fluffy poofy kind in the US but more like finely ground table sugar)

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Directions:

1.Spread the Corn Flakes an a big pan. Meanwhile, heat a pot on the stove and add in the butter and fake Nutella. Stir slowly until they are melted and well combined.

2. Pour the mixture over the Corn Flakes and stir until they are evenly coated. The Corn Flakes tend to clump together like Chex doesn’t so you have to get your hands dirty and get in there to break them up or you’ll end up with a giant ball of cereal and chocolate. But that’s doesn’t sound all that bad to me, so it’s your choice of course.

3. Next, sprinkle the powdered sugar over the cereal and slowly stir so it covers all the flakes. It won’t be all white like real Puppy Chow is because the sugar kind of melts a little no matter how much you add. So just add it til you’re happy and resign yourself to sticky fingers while eating.

Now you can save some for tomorrow and give youreself a normal serving size, or just eat the whole thing yourself 🙂 Ju bëftë mirë!

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

The pride of an Albanian woman

I’ve been tutoring a judge here in Shkoder (who shall remain anonymous) for about 6 months here, and I can honestly say that she’s taught me just as much as I’ve taught her. Seriously. Sitting down for an hour with her is like being transported back to communist Albania with the passion that she tells stories and explains the intricacies of life back then. I feel like I could write a whole novel and fill them with her stories, but I’ll try not to get carried away. So the other day we were debated the marriage equality laws in America when the coversation took a turn to marriage in Albania way back when. And this is what I learned:

Did you know that during communism they often used a formal to determine the age at which a girl would marry? If you took the age of the man and divided it by 2 then added 7, that should be the age of the woman (well, the maximum). I’m not joking. So this judge’s grandmother was 13 years old when her mother brought her into a room and told her to peak through the key hole at the man in the adjoining room. He was old, with a big gray mustache and a round potbelly. And he would be her husband. They had 13 children, but only 12 survived and only 6 made it past age 20.

During communism the government gave families and extra monthly stipend for every 8 children they had, so at least they enjoyed that luxury for awhile. But of course, her husband died while her children were still young and she was forced to raise them on her own. After World War II ended this wonderful woman went on to be one of the first women in Shkoder to hold a job outside of her home. She went to work at a kindergarten and a village orphanage just to earn the equivalent of $30 a month with which to feed her family.

 

When a woman marries a man in Albania, she goes to live at his house with his family. And if he dies before her, sometimes she can bee freed (if his family is an honorable one). She can be allowed to return to her house with her respective family and even take the children with her, but not the sons. Or her late husband’s family can offer to marry her to another brother, if they are lucky enough to have multiple boys of age. And she would be honored to accept the offer. This way she can continue to live with her children under the guardianship of her late husband’s family.

But this amazing woman was so enamored with her late husband that she wanted to honor him in death by remaining loyal, so she decided to go it alone. She would not remarry. Instead, she survived Italian occupation, German occupation, World War I, World War 11, and a 50 year communist dictatorship. All on her own. Simply amazing.

Stories like these are the reason I’m so thankful to be living and working where I am. These people are so in touch with their history and where they came from. They are so appreciative of every little thing they have. And they never turn up their nose or sneer at their neighbors who have less. Because they still remember when…

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Sushi for 5

This weekend I was lucky enough to host some new PCVs in Shkoder. These newbies have been in Albania for just 3 weeks so in order to integrate them into real life in Albania, we made sushi! Okay so maybe sometimes you want to relive the glory days of international cuisine in America rather than eat qofte and pilaf for the 14th day in a row. Give in to your cravings, that’s what I say.

All the fixings! It only took like 2 hrs to prep this whole thing out, but well worth it.

All the fixings! It only took like 2 hrs to prep this whole thing out, but well worth it.

The sushi master hard at work.

The sushi master hard at work.

 

One of my fellow PCVs up here in northern Albania was actually a sushi chef before he joined the Peace Corps. I know, quite a natural transition, right? Regardless, I thank my lucky stars that he has sushi paper, rice wine vinegar, and chopsticks just casually in his apartment in the village of Vau Dejes.

We went with cooked shrimp since raw fish in this country might leave us all with giardia...or something worse.

We went with cooked shrimp since raw fish in this country might leave us all with giardia…or something worse.

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Who would’ve thought that I’d learn how to make sushi while living in Albania as an English teacher. I’m not complaining though. In fact, I think it might have to go on my resume. “Expert sushi roller”. Is it roller or maker or chef? Maybe just “expert sushi consumer”

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“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Cocaine and good luck

What do these two things have in common? Well let me tell you. It’s kind of a funny story.

As a teacher in Albania I obviously come into contact with a lot of young people. Every day I teach about 300 different students in Shkoder. And like any newcomer to a foreign place, I spend a lot of time observing people. Just trying to understand. So when I first got here and noticed that all of my male students had long pinky fingernails, I was aghast. In the U.S. this long pinky fingernail is understood as a sign l that someone either sells or does a cocaine. You know, they grow out their fingernail to put the cocaine in so they can snort it easier without needing those wads of $100 bills. I’m not sure where I learned this fun fact; probably watching too many crime dramas on television. Regardless.

Living in a developing country I figured this wasn’t an outrageous assumption. Drugs are pretty rampant in places like this (though I’ve yet to see anything beyond the typical teenage marijuana experimentation  since there is so much unemployment, hunger, poverty, corruption, and everything else that comes with development. So  initially I just shook my head and let it go. I never brought it up or asked questions. That is, until yesterday.

So there I was, sitting at a bar with some of my students (they seem more like sisters than students these days, I swear) when the topic of differences between American culture and Albanian culture came up. You have to understand that after a year of going to these girls without outlandish questions and having them explain the intricacies or Albania to me, I can pretty much ask them anything. I took a deep breathe and bravely asked them if cocaine is popular in Albania. They looked at me like I was crazy, so of course I had to explain all about my observations and the fingernails and the American tv shows and everything. They burst out laughing.

Apparently having a long pink fingernail in Albania is a sign of good fortune and good luck. Men here try to grow it as long as they can and if it doesn’t break then it means they are having a period of good luck in their life. A sign from god that you haven’t broken it yet and should probably hit the casinos? Or an indicator that you don’t have to do hard labor and can therefore grow out your nails? Who knows.

So there you have it; lesson learned. When you think you are living in the middle of a crack-infested drug dealing neighborhood, maybe you’re really just surrounded by superstitious people trying to change their luck. While other places in the world deal with unemployment and poverty by turning to drugs, Albanians just grow out their fingernails and hope for the best. Sounds about right.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”